John Calvin – hero or villain of the faith?

If you were putting together a Christianity’s Hall of Shame – those who’ve done most harm in the name of Christ, and brought Christianity into disrepute – who would top your list?

Corrupt, power-hungry medieval popes? Colluders with evil regimes, like Pius XII in Nazi Germany? Inquisitors, crusaders and conquistadores who’ve tortured and murdered in Christ’s name? Prejudiced persecutors and oppressors of Jews, gays, women, blacks, non-conformists? False prophets, heresy-teachers and founders of dodgy cults? Money-grubbing televangelists and disgraced pastors? Paedophile priests? Emperors Constantine and Theodosius, King Henry VIII of England? Sir Cliff Richard? (Only joking – though Mistletoe and Wine is my definition of a criminal record.)

When I set out to write this a few weeks ago, my own contender for the top spot was 16th-century Reformer John Calvin. My feeling was (and to an extent still is) that Christianity would be better off without Calvin’s influence.

Why? My basis was partly theological – Calvin’s formulation of the doctrine of dual predestination, which I consider repellent and wrong, and his contributions to what later became Calvinism, particularly the 5 points or ‘TULIP’.

My main reasons though were accounts of the Genevan theocracy in which Calvin was involved, and especially its harsh treatment of heretics and dissidents, and the legalistic enforcement of puritanically ‘righteous’ behaviour. I saw in Calvin many of the crimes of my list above – colluding with an evil regime (the Geneva Consistory); supporting torture and killing in Christ’s name; promoting the horrible heresy of dual predestination while cruelly persecuting heretics, Jews and Anabaptists.

I’ve not undergone a complete Calvin conversion, but on reference to more balanced and nuanced historical accounts I’ve had to alter my views slightly. (I do hate it when facts get in the way of a good prejudice…)

Calvin’s ‘Marmite effect’

Calvin seems to have an unusually strong polarising effect – like Marmite, people tend either to love him or hate him, hero-worship him or vilify him. It’s hard to find an unbiased biography of Calvin, one that isn’t either hagiography or demonisation. Wikipedia of course does a fair if slightly unexciting job (the Talk page is always more fun); and to its credit the Catholic Encyclopedia is even-handed with praise and criticism, even calling him ‘undoubtedly the greatest of Protestant divines’. William Gilbert’s Renaissance and Reformation also has an interesting and balanced chapter on Calvin and Geneva, available to read online.

But in general Calvin is either presented as a courageous and tireless reformer, brilliant thinker and biblical expositor, godly saint and tender-hearted pastor almost on the level of St Paul; or else as a vengeful, grudge-bearing autocrat, a small-minded puritanical tyrant with a taste for torturing and killing heretics (and particularly anyone who dared criticise him or his preaching).

There does seem to be some truth in both these sides of his character. Calvin’s Christian conversion was, I’m convinced, genuine and profound; to accuse him of not being a true Christian just doesn’t wash, however much we don’t like his theology or some of his actions. There’s also no denying his brilliance as a thinker, writer and expositor, nor his tireless hard work – though some might call it unhealthy overwork.

He does also seem to have been tender-hearted and kind in his personal relations, except seemingly when he felt criticised or undermined. And he was surprisingly reluctant initially to take on the preaching job in Geneva; he only accepted when the more extreme reformist Guillame Farel used what might be seen as spiritual blackmail to persuade him.

The whole Geneva theocracy itself was not without its positive side, much of which was due to Calvin’s influence. Calvin helped Geneva to be a place that welcomed refugees and educated children not just in religion but in secular arts and sciences (Calvin was a great champion of the science of astronomy).

Calvin’s darker side

Like all of us though, John Calvin had a darker side, which to be fair he seems to have been reasonably aware of (it would be ironic indeed if the founder of Total Depravity failed to notice any of his own failings).

But Calvin’s darker side perhaps had more opportunity for outlet than most. In the later days of the Genevan theocracy he appears to have had powerful influence and, according to some versions at least, seems to have used it to help enforce a kind of puritanical police state where crimes like laughing in church were apparently subject to harsh punishments, and criticism of Calvin to even harsher ones.

It’s hard to know how much of this is true, and we shouldn’t be quick to pass judgement without knowing the context. It seems strange that a brilliant thinker like Calvin would have imagined it possible to enforce piety in this way; this is surely Pharisaism, where external transgressions are punished but inner sins of, say, judgementalism or self-righteousness are unnoticed. But even if any of the reports are true, it doesn’t reflect very well on Calvin.

Perhaps even more troubling is Calvin’s involvement in the treatment of heretics, particularly the Unitarian Michael Servetus. A contemporary account of Geneva quoted recently on Richard Holloway’s Honest Doubt referred to the horrific stench of burning heretics and the callousness of the Consistory rejoicing in their fate. It sounded like a scene from the Nazi death camps.

We must be clear that Calvin wasn’t involved in all of the Geneva Consistory’s judgements and punishments, let alone solely responsible for them, and he reportedly pleaded for Servetus to be beheaded not burned. But he was surely involved in and responsible for some, and it seems to me that he is at least guilty by association for others. Calvin wrote in his defence that it was right to treat heretics without mercy; that it was necessary to reject all tender-hearted feelings towards them in order to enact God’s command.

Of course, Calvin wasn’t alone in this; his was probably the prevailing view at the time, and it’s unfair to judge him by the standards of our age. Nonetheless Calvin seems to have gone beyond what was necessary or biblical in his approach to heretics. I understand that Luther felt Calvin had gone too far – though later Luther too was guilty of persecuting Anabaptists. Both also unfortunately expressed anti-Semitic sentiment, Calvin rather less so than Luther. In this too they were products of their age, but their words have had a terrible legacy.

The Institutes

In order to comment without too much prejudice, I’ve started reading Book 1 of the Institutes (which you can read online here). On the whole it’s better than I expected. It’s part apologetics, part Christian primer, part systematic theology. It reminds me a bit of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, and  there are also resonances with Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Miracles. All have similar strengths and weaknesses; they’re well written and well argued, but to my mind a little over-reliant on reasoned argument and logical ‘proofs’ which don’t always move or convince, particularly if you don’t accept their starting premises.

To me, the Institutes seem based on an overly narrow Scriptural hermeneutic, leading to an overly negative view of humanity and an overly prescriptive view of Christian discipleship. There are some great parts, but overall I find the Institutes slightly terrifying, with their emphasis on God’s righteous judgement and on humans’ total depravity and inability to do anything good. (It’s perhaps telling that there are far more mentions of ‘fear’ than ‘love’.)

To me there seems something a little unhealthy, even unhinged, at the heart of some of Calvin’s thinking and reasoning in the Institutes, particularly around depravity and also reprobation. It reminds me a little of a scene in the film A Beautiful Mind, where the brilliant John Nash, in a paranoid delusional episode, constructs elaborate, precise and entirely spurious meanings from random data. Calvin’s exegetical reasoning at times seems to me to share something of this quality of slightly insane brilliance.

That aside, Calvin’s Institutes are a masterpiece of systematic theology, the work of a great mind. As such I admire them rather as I admire an imposing and over-awing cathedral. But like cathedrals, systematic theologies are only impressive human constructs; they point towards but cannot capture or contain God, nor make the ineffable effable. Calvin’s theology, based on and including Scriptural inerrancy, seems to me to be seeking to squeeze Scripture and God into a human framework which cannot contain it, and which therefore does violence to the very things it seeks to honour.

Personality

But why does Calvin provoke such strong and polarised reactions? I don’t think either his theology or his alleged theocracy are quite enough in themselves to produce either the profound allegiance or the almost visceral antipathy which many (myself included) have felt towards Calvin. I suspect that much of it comes down to personality – Calvin’s personality and one’s own.

There are aspects of Calvin’s personality that remind me of traits in my own relatives which I find difficult, and also probably similar traits in myself which I’ve denied and not accepted. When I look at Calvin, I unconsciously see uncomfortable, ‘unacceptable’ aspects of myself and my family and I feel antipathy towards him. I may well also be reading into Calvin traits that aren’t really there, but which I’m implying from my own experiences. I think psychologists call this transference.

These traits include his alleged violent temper and aggressive-defensive reaction to perceived criticism or disloyalty; his truth-oriented rather than people-oriented perspective, which to me makes him feel somewhat cold and unloving; and his apparent tendency towards authoritarianism and control.

As a speculative aside, I’m also interested in his relationship with his wife, which is often cited as an example of his tender-hearted side. But his own report that she never gave him a moment’s hindrance gives me pause. That sounds suspiciously to me like she never stood up to him, never challenged him; and from my own experience personalities like Calvin need frequent challenging by the people closest to them, to save them from becoming tyrannical or blinkered. However, as this is only based on one comment taken out of context, it really is just speculation.

Hero or villain?

So, John Calvin – hero or villain? Probably a bit of both, like most of us, though perhaps with slightly more pronounced strengths and flaws than most. He reminds me above all of that other great polarising figure, logical theologian and erstwhile persecutor of heretics, St Paul – another whose personality I don’t always find particularly attractive.

Calvin isn’t really my cup of tea, and he’s unlikely to become my favourite theologian any time soon. I still feel that the overall effect of his theology has been more baleful than beneficial – particularly those parts which have ended up as what we call Calvinism. But if I’m still secretly inclined to view Calvin as a villain, I’ll admit now that that may be more from personal prejudice than historical fact.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Calvinism, Controversies, Evangelicalism, Heresy/blasphemy, Politics and faith, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to John Calvin – hero or villain of the faith?

  1. Eric says:

    It’s probably worth pointing out something that you’ll discover as you read the Institutes – Calvin is not particularly responsible for TULIP. He developed a complete theological system with strong influence in the budding Protestant community. After Calvin’s death Jacobus Arminius disagree with five points of Calvin’s whole theology. The Calvinist response to Arminius, reaffirming Calvin’s take on these points, became TULIP. Calvin, however, never attempted to reduce his system to these points.

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    • Yes, I think my issue is probably more with 5-point Calvinism than it is with Calvin himself, though I don’t find myself drawn to him as some do. I’ve read much of Book 1 of the Institutes now, and parts of the other books, and there’s certainly much good in it but overall it leaves me rather cold. I can appreciate the brilliance though, and understand that it was groundbreaking at the time.

      I’ll be looking at predestination and the 5 points in my next post…

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  2. John Marsden MadMarsie50 says:

    Hi Harv,

    Your Calvin piece echoes the polarised opionons on another ‘reformer’ ; Oliver Cromwell.
    I find it fascinating that the two staues outside H of P [and presumably viewed as ‘archetypal British leaders’] are Coeur de Lion [Never in the country..and another religious intolerant..] and Cromwell. No Henry VIII, no Queen Bess, even Churchill is parked across the way… Hmmmmm…

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  3. Terry says:

    There’s an ongoing debate about the extent to which Calvin was a Calvinist. It might be worth you tapping into that debate.

    Also, you write:
    I’m also interested in his relationship with his wife, which is often cited as an example of his tender-hearted side. But his own report that she never gave him a moment’s hindrance gives me pause. That sounds suspiciously to me like she never stood up to him, never challenged him; and from my own experience personalities like Calvin need challenging by the people closest to them, to save them from becoming tyrannical or blinkered.

    I confess I don’t know too much about Calvin’s wife, as she died before I was born; but to me, it sounds like you’re not being fair to Calvin. Calvin’s life was pretty much tied up with church affairs, preaching, writing, etc. I just get the impression that she took care of household affairs so he could get on with the other stuff.

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    • Where can I find this debate Terry?

      You’re probably right, I’m almost definitely being unfair to Calvin and his good wife, who died just before even I was born. It’s just that Calvin’s personality does appear to bear considerable likeness to certain people I’m quite close to, and who would probably speak of their wife very much how Calvin does – but who I think would have benefited from a more robust relationship with less quiet submission and more challenge. Of course, I’m very likely reading things into the relationship that aren’t there – I’m not personally acquainted with the Calvins at the moment, and can only go on the apparent likeness to people and relationships I do know. But it’s quite a strong likeness, and human personalities and relationships do seem to follow certain broad patterns.

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      • Terry says:

        Well, the debate’s an ongoing thing. If I recall correctly, it was first argued by (of all people) R.T. Kendall in his PhD thesis (published as Calvin and English Calvinism. Paul Helm wrote against this idea and then others have either taken it up or shot it down. Your best bet would be to get hold of an academic volume on Calvin (e.g. The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin or something by Richard Muller).

        Re: his wife. The fact is we don’t know how Mr and Mrs Calvin related. She could have challenged him on certain things, and he could have been a mouse of a man. It’s known that all he wanted to do was to be left alone and get on with his studies, so I actually see him as quite meek when it comes to confrontation with certain people!

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        • I actually have access to a secret source of information on the Calvins’ home life, the Codex Calvinus Domesticus, or Sacred Diary of J. Calvin, Christian speaker, aged 37 and a half. Extract from 7 Jan 1547: ‘Mrs C didst henpeck again regarding the cat litter. Didst also nag me to put into my book the doctrine of dual predestination, which I suppose I now must for the sake of domestic harmony. Mustn’t grumble, for by the grace of God she didst also prepare a stonkingly good repast of toasted camembert. Must remember to buy tulips for mother-in-law’s birthday, though I do confess I detest me that species of bloom.’

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  4. Liam Harron says:

    Thanks for your thought provoking comments

    Does anyone have an understanding of how much Calvinism influenced the “Ulster-Scots” from the time of the Ulster Plantation (c1610) onwards and even how it influenced the development of “Protestantism” in Ulster?

    Liam Harron

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    • Hi Liam, thanks for your comment. From the very little I know, the English colonists of Ulster were mainly Anglican and the Scottish colonists were primarily Presbyterian, i.e. essentially Scottish Calvinist. From that I’d guess that Calvinism was certainly one of the major influences on Ulster, leading to churches like Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, which I believe is strongly Calvinist.

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